Edgar Wright Made This Documentary So He Could Stop Explaining Why Sparks Are LA's Underground Rock Royalty
The joke about Sparks — if you've even heard of them — has always been that they're the best British band to come out of America. That confusion is why director Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver," "Hot Fuzz") wanted to make a documentary about them: he was tired of explaining who the band is and why he loves them.
"One of the things that I hope this documentary does is that I feel Sparks deserve to be Los Angeles rock royalty," Wright said of his movie, "The Sparks Brothers." And the only thing that's been holding them back is people think that they're not from California, or they're dumbfounded when they find out they are."
The film premiered last month at the virtual Sundance Film Festival. Wright chronicles the band's many struggles — dropped by record labels on a seemingly annual basis, seeing a multi-year collaboration with filmmaker Tim Burton fall apart — and its constant self-reinventions, moving from glam rock to pop to jazz to electronic dance without selling its musical soul.
The band is made up of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, and as Russell says at one point in the film, "Sometimes it's the setbacks that actually make you stronger."
The earliest iterations of the band — called Urban Renewal Project and halfnelson — were formed back in 1967, when the Mael brothers attended UCLA.
Russ was the lead singer, and as befit vocalists of the era, sported big hair and bigger stage theatrics. Ron, at keyboards, was far more subdued but in a sort of eerie way. His facial expressions are remindful of Salvador Dali. He's also known for his mustache, which at first looked vaguely Hitler-ian and now resembles a David Niven-esqe pencil drawing.
They hit the scene as Sparks in the early 1970s and were hugely influential on the likes of Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Erasure, Franz Ferdinand and countless electronic dance musicians.
In the decades since, Sparks has recorded more than 250 songs over some 20 albums. The brothers have been performing music for more than 50 years, and they're still at it today. But they remain a largely underground band, and even people who know them make a common mistake.
As much as people are convinced they're from the UK, they actually grew up right here — in Pacific Palisades.
"We had always been huge Anglophiles," says Russell Mael. "And to this day there's a greater acceptance of eccentricity in the music scene there."
Wright's documentary about the band takes its name from a brand-obsessed 1970s record executive who thought The Sparks Brothers was a good name for the band — a clever play on the Marx Brothers. But Russell and Ron, being contrarian and forward-thinking even in their youth, rejected the idea, settling instead on Sparks.
I caught up with Wright in London to talk about the film. You can listen to the full interview from our newsroom's local news and culture show, Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC, or you can read highlights below that.
What was your first encounter with the band?
I remember Sparks on [the British TV show] "Top of the Pops," because they really stood out from the other acts. If you had another act, they seemed desperate to be liked, like Abba, who were all smiles, dancing and kind of like grinning their way through the performance. And Sparks were sort of a different proposition: slightly intimidating, especially Ron Mael, staring down the camera at you. And I just thought, Who are these guys on the TV who are beguiling and ever so slightly intimidating?
And how did you track Ron and Russell down?
I thought, I wonder if Sparks are on Twitter? I found their account and it said, Sparks follows [me]. I was like, Oh my God!. So I sent them a direct message. And Russell responded immediately, and I was like, "Most bands have a PR person that handles their account." And he goes, "Not us." So he's like, "Where are you?" And I said, "I'm in Los Angeles." And he goes, "We're in Los Angeles, too." And it's at that moment, the world becomes much smaller. These guys are only a 20-minute drive away from me right now. So within 24 hours, I was having breakfast with them in Beverly Hills.
It's hard to place them in Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is clearly a big part of their lives.
You wouldn't think that Sparks were kind of like surf bums. But in fact, they were. Living in Pacific Palisades, lying on the beach, surfing and listening to pop music all day — they said that was extremely formative.
You love to use pop music in your movies. But have you ever used a Sparks song in any of your films?
No, and I'll tell you why. I tried once to use a Sparks song, "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," probably their most famous song, in "Hot Fuzz." But here's the thing I discovered, and this is why I think Sparks are not on any soundtracks: Sparks cannot be audio wallpaper. The songs are too epic. And the lyrics are too evocative. They're not easy songs to just have on in the background. So I found that when I put it on the scene, it went pretty well for a bit. But at a certain point, especially as a fan, I found myself listening to the song and not paying attention to what was going on in the scene. So if Sparks haven't been in my films, it's because Sparks cannot easily be ignored.
Critics gave "The Sparks Brothers" rave reviews at Sundance — it's currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — but its release plans have not been announced.
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